Born to die: the short, sharp life of a bobby calf

 

Hundreds of thousands of baby calves are slaughtered every year in Australia so that we can drink milk and eat cheese. Farmers don’t like it, but they have no choice.

A bobby calf is born at Greenslopes farm.  Picture:  Larissa Gardiner
A bobby calf is born at Greenslopes farm.
Picture: Larissa Gardiner

By HOLLY HUMPHREYS

A purple bubble blows in and out of the cow’s backside. This 500kg springer (pregnant cow) has been waiting nine months for that bubble to show and it will soon be burst by a 40kg calf.

After 40 minutes of contractions, the cow lies down on her right side and lifts her left leg. Staring at the bluegums in the distance she pushes, voicing an unenthusiastic “merrrr”. Out pokes a nose. One more big push and out pokes a foot and a torso.

“I hope it’s a heifer, it better be. I’ll be cross if it’s not,” says farmer Matt, straddling his quad bike.

The calf dangles in its sack from the springer’s backside for a few seconds, like a cocoon hanging off the bark of a tree. It’s wrapped up in the bubble and it’s hard to tell if it is breathing or even alive. Finally it drops to the ground, limp, bloody and not breathing.

The springer stares at her offspring, unable to set it free from the sack. Why did its hoof not break the bubble?

Matt steps in, tearing open the sack with one hand and giving the calf a tap on the head.

The calf doesn’t move. It’s choking. He gives it a shake. The calf still doesn’t move. It appears dead.

He clutches the newborn by its back legs and, like a rotor on a helicopter, swings the calf around in circles for 10 seconds. The whirling forces something ivory-coloured and puck-shaped out of the calf’s throat and on to the ground.

With one last tap on the head, the calf’s neck lifts. The farmer grins. It’s alive. The springer’s offspring has sprung.

But this calf isn’t just lucky to be alive, she’s lucky because she’s female. Unfortunately “O”, a calf born yesterday, is not so lucky.

O is just another male born into the calf trade.

Matt puts a collar with a number around the newborn heifer’s neck. At Greenslopes farm all calves are identified by numbers or letters rather than names.

Male calves like O, which aren’t needed on a dairy farm because they don’t produce milk, are called bobby calves. They live just a few days before being sent to an abattoir. They are destined to become veal for human consumption, pet food or perhaps the soft black calf leather you find in a Louis Vuitton bag.

The animal welfare committee in the Primary Industries Ministerial Council prepared a code of practice  (MCOP), advising that bobby calves sent to market should be at least five days old, have dry, withered navel cords, have been fed within six hours of delivery to the point of collection, weigh more than 23kg, and be strong enough to be transported for sale or slaughter.

Larissa and Matt Gardiner, who run Greenslopes farm in Tyrendarra, southwestern Victoria, are dairy farmers who breed heifers, bobby calves, and the occasional bull.

It’s a life they were born to. Matt grew up on a dairy farm in MacArthur, only 30 minutes from Tyrendarra, and Larissa’s grandfather first owned the Greenslopes land in the early 1900s. The Gardiners work seven days a week. They wake before dawn, round up and milk the cows, feed the calves and maintain the farm. This happens all while caring for their children, Sam and Jake. But farming isn’t as simple as that.

They milk about 190 cows on their 160 hectares, which means they deliver 190 bobby calves (unless a springer has twins) from April to the end of June.

“Been farming my whole life. Trying to make a dollar the best way I can,” says Matt.

“It’s a full-time job,” he says after five hours sleep. Like a midwife, he tends to the springers at night to help with calving.

“The idea is to get her (the springer) in calf early, 300 days of good milk and then dry her off.”

To get the cows in calf the Gardiners spend $20 per artificial insemination straw and $7 for the service, but they usually have to pay for two inseminations. Recently the Warrnambool Standard newspaper reported bobby calves being sold for as little as $12.

While economical for farmers, the short lives of bobby calves and the associated transport guidelines are issues for animal welfare activists. On February 1, 2013, ABC’s Lateline aired a story titled Victorian abattoir accused of cruel treatment of unwanted dairy calves. Footage captured by animal welfare activists Animals Australia showed calves being prodded and thrown.

The RSPCA recommends that bobby calves should be 10 days old before slaughter, fed at least four hours before transported, or every 12 hours. Although these requests are in the interest of the animals, they cause major issues for dairy farmers.

“I don’t think the lifespan makes a difference to the calves. As soon as they’re off the cow and in the shed, (then) through the abattoirs, the better. The end result is all the same,” says Matt.

“It’ll get too difficult as a farmer. You’ve got that many calves that you gotta keep and you’re not getting money for them,” he says.

O has just been born, but his life will be over by the time he is seven days old. This is how it unfolds:

Day one: Fawn-coloured calf O is born on April 23, 2013, to a Jersey-Friesian cross. He spends most of his first day sitting in grass and hay in the paddock with the springer cows. Within 20 minutes he has built up enough courage and curiosity to stand, despite his wobbly, twig-like legs. This is O’s only full day of liberty in the paddock.

Day two: O spends the morning in the paddock with his mother, mainly suckling on her teats. About 2.30pm, he and the other day-old bobby calves are put on a trailer and taken to the bobby calf pen. O spends his next (and last) four days here.

Days three, four and five: 
“By day three they’re fairly strong, fit and able. They’re walking about and running around quite easily,” says Larissa. O’s days are spent mostly on his tummy, except for the morning and afternoon feeds, when the springers are brought up for milking.

Day six: O has his regular morning feed. Larissa then puts the calves back into the pen and separates the ones ready for slaughter from those still too young. She pierces the ears of the five-day-old calves with National Livestock Identification tags (a system used to track the health, age, and supplier of the calves). They don’t flinch. They just stand there.

Leon, from Vic Stock, a bobby calf buyer and transport company, arrives just after 9am with a trailer connected to the back of his ute. He hangs some scales from the back of the trailer, and then goes into the pen and, with his left arm cupped under the neck and his right arm under the back legs, picks up the bobby calves one by one, and hangs them from the scales.

O is first.

“Thirty-two,” yells Leon.

He proceeds to do the same with the other bobby calves destined for slaughter the following day.

“Thirty-nine … 42 … 36,” his voice drops out as he weighs the last one.

Within minutes it is time for O to go. He spends the next few hours being driven around in the trailer as more bobby calves are collected. The trailer looks big enough to fit about 12 calves, but by midday, Leon says, there will be 40 tucked in together, and they will have arrived at Midfield Meats abattoir in Warrnambool.

“I enjoy the drive,” says Leon. “You get to know a lot of the farmers.”

Leon isn’t keen on extending the lifespan of the bobby calves.

“If it becomes 10 days it’s almost too hard to pick a calf up. I picked up a calf last week at 60kg. OH&S wouldn’t be too happy about that,” he said.

Within minutes the four calves from Greenslopes farm are locked in, the engine is on, and Leon is steering down the driveway with O in the trailer on the last leg of his life. Leon explains that O will be kept in a pen at the abattoir with about 50 calves and some sheep. The next morning he will be killed.

And then O will be gone, just like all the other boys in the bobby calf trade.

Leon says that extending the lifespan of the calves would mean more farmers would be “hitting them all on the head” instead of caring for them in those first few days.

But for Matt, despite the financial cost of keeping them alive for longer, killing them immediately after birth is something he simply could not do.

“It’s too hard. You’re not farming to be a murderer. (Calving is) part of your farming and you enjoy it,” he said.

According to Robin Condron, manager of Animal Health and Welfare at Dairy Australia, about 400,000 bobby calves are killed each year. Animals Australia has estimated the number at 700,000, but this includes all dairy and beef calves up to six months old. Even though the milk trade has been around for years, most people don’t realise that it means calves are created just to be slaughtered.

At Greenslopes, a Friesian springer more than a metre wide is devoid of energy. Matt says he thought she might be having twins. Yesterday, he called the vet, who decided to induce birth, but there was no confirmation of a multiple birth.

“Riss!” Matt yells.

Larissa runs up to the paddock. Matt has taken off his shirt and is kneeling behind the cow, with his whole arm inside her trying to assist with the birth. It is time, but she lacks the energy to push. Matt can feel a hoof and he needs to move the calf around to make sure it doesn’t tear the springer’s insides.

“It’s warm and juicy,” he says, while blood and urine and water gush and then trickle out of her.

He ties one end of a rope to the calf’s hoof and the other to the quad bike. Larissa starts the bike and gently rolls it forward, pulling the rope. Matt joins in and hauls on the rope. It takes all his strength, but the calf becomes visible. It has a short drop to the ground. Larissa picks it up and places it next to the mother’s head.

A boy.

Matt reaches in again to see if she really was pregnant with twins. He feels another hoof. He also has to turn this calf to allow it to be born safely. With a couple of pulls, calf No.2 is born. Larissa picks it up and puts it in front of the mother’s head.

Another boy.

Exporters can’t sell bobby calves that have any antibiotic or medicinal residue in their body, because international buyers won’t accept them. Because the springer was induced, the twins can’t be sold. Now Matt and Larissa have one exhausted cow and two male calves but still they have smiles on their faces. They have saved the cow, and have two calves that are healthy despite being born prematurely.

“It’s good to do a good job, you know? I don’t want to fly out to the paddock and fly the cows in, do a quick job of this or that, I want to do the job and make sure it’s good,” says Matt.

Even though bobby calves are worth almost nothing, some farmers still do a good job. But, producing such a low-value product leaves room for people to cut corners, not because they want to, but because of the economic constraints placed upon them.

Two weeks later Larissa says: “The twins are getting stronger.

“Mum is getting up by herself, but she looks terrible. She is eating well. They (the twins) had their first drink off her yesterday. So we will now be rearing them,” she says.

“We look after our animals 100 per cent and we can’t do any more than that. The calf will always well looked after and if it needs to be put down, that’s what happens,” she said.